Holograph Letter from Adam Smith to David Hume

Holograph Letter from Adam Smith to David Hume. Four pages with section cut out.

Contributor: Carmen Casaliggi

Location: Archives & Special Collections, University of Glasgow Library, Hillhead Street, Glasgow, United Kingdom. Part of the Bannerman Collection donated by J. P. Bannerman and G. W. MacFarlane in c. 1937.

Description: Writing to David Hume from Toulouse in September 1765, Adam Smith forcefully tried to dissuade him from settling in Paris. Written in Smith’s hand, this letter opens with the amicable salutation “My Dear friend”, unusually intimate at this date between a younger man and an older one, and ends on page four with no subscription (final greetings) and no superscription (address). The signature on the verso has been cut out, probably by an autograph-hunter with the result that several lines are missing. However, as the sender’s name “Adam Smith”, written in Smith’s own hand, remains intact on the same page (upside down), I would suggest that the decimated part could instead pertain to the “hold their tongues” section on page three, where there were possibly allusions to politically sensitive names and material. This letter expresses a proto-Romantic nationalism and regionalism asserted in the face of transnational cosmopolitanism generated by émigré experiences and European encounters. It also epitomises the medium of exchange that extended salon culture transnationally.

Smith begins with the remark that “[a] man is always displaced in a forreign [sic] Country.” He expresses distrust of the French who he saw as “more meanly interested” than the British and warns Hume that “cordiality of friendship” (1) should not be intended as it would perhaps be in Britain. Smith’s own experience has been characterised by a sense of self-displacement and a tense relationship with elite French society, more specifically, “the great Princes and Ladies who want you to live with them” (1). Smith is sharp in criticising those who welcomed him as a guest in their residences for their lack of “real and sincere affection to you” (1) and informs Hume that their actual preoccupation is rather to “gratify their own vanity by having an illustrious man in their house” (though he acknowledges the “cordial & trusty affection” (2) Lord and Lady Hertford showed him during his stay at the Embassy in Paris). The relatively closed networks of Parisian salon culture that Smith criticises here are however seen by him as the primary means of transmitting the more refined ideas that are characteristic of educated societies, and he therefore desires entry to them. To this end, Smith asks Hume to leave for him “some letters” of introduction to “honest men and women” (4) already in Hume’s networks of trust, for him to collect at the banks which also served as postal addresses during his stay in Paris. Smith specifically mentions the English Banker at Paris, Sir Thomas Foiley (17? – ?), the Swiss businessman and banker Peter Thellason (1737-1797), and the Genevan banker Jacques Necker (1732-1804). Necker, in particular, was especially well known in Paris as the husband of the French-Swiss salonnière Suzanne Curchod (1737-1797), whose salon mainly served to enhance the reputation of her husband (Kale, 42).

Smith’s request evidences the transnational networks connecting the British community in Paris with Swiss and French circles, but also showcases the ways in which the ‘sociable letter’ worked: the web of correspondence co-exists with face to face encounters in Europe’s salons. The letter also offers an example of the way in which transnationalism provides the framework for nationalism. Smith insists that both he and Hume should settle in London and that Hume’s professed hostility for the British capital for its “hatred of Scotchmen” is unfounded. (3). Rather, Smith remarks that “at London where you are a Native” you become “a candidate for every-thing” – even though this included having to face fiercer criticism because of his irreligion – in contrast to “Paris where as a forreigner, you possibly can be a candidate for nothing” (3). Yet, despite this assertion of Britishness, the combination of Edinburgh, London, and Paris in this letter’s closure also attests to Smith’s cosmopolitan awareness; France and Scotland remain places to “make short excursions together sometimes to see our friends” while London becomes “the place for our ordinary residence” (3).

The letter’s material aspect is as important as its content (see Stallybrass 6). The spacing of lines and the margins are regular and proportionate to the paper size indicating, firstly, that paper was affordable and, secondly, the performance of a slightly distant but respectable relationship (despite the friendly salutation), that corresponds to the social distance typical of these hierarchical networks of elite sociability. Without a street address, this letter must have been delivered by hand. What Hume would first have seen when receiving it was the name “Adam Smith”, written at the top of one of the folds that were made for sending the letter. Hume at this stage starts the afterlife of the letter when opening it, reading it, and then filing it with other letters from Smith (see the letter’s filing holes / burn marks). Smith’s letter represents a material medium of social cultural exchange and whatever Smith had written in the parts which have been cut out could only underline what the letter materialised in its own folds, marks, and blank spaces: the aspiration to preserve the integrity of a friendship and to seal both philosophers’ commitment to one another and to the ideals that brought them into correspondence across Europe.

Date: 1765

Creator: Adam Smith (to David Hume)

Subject: Adam Smith (1723-1790); David Hume (1711-1776); Francis Seymour Conway, Marquis of Hertford (1719-1794); Jacques Necker (1732-1804); Peter Thellason (1737-1797); Sir Thomas Foiley (17? – ?); Scottish Enlightenment; the Ancien Régime.

Media rights: By kind permission of Archives & Special Collections, University of Glasgow Library.

Object type: holograph letter (with some portions cut out).

Format: ink on paper. One octavo sheet of 15 x 12 cm, prefolded to make two leaves and four pages written on all of the four pages (c. 665 words). There is no signature, no date, no address, and no sealing. There are some burn marks.

 Language: English

Publisher: This letter corresponds to letter 88 in The Correspondence of Adam Smith, ed. Ernest Campbell Mossner and Ian Simpson Ross, in The Glasgow Edition of the Work and Correspondence of Adam Smith, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), vol. VI, pp. 107-108.

Digital collection record: SMITH, Adam. Holograph letter to David Hume. [Undated, ? September or October, 1765] https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/exhibns/scottish/adamsmith.html

Catalogue number: GB 247 MS Gen 1035(1025)/130.


  1. The Correspondence of Adam Smith, ed. Ernest Campbell Mossner and Ian Simpson Ross, in The Glasgow Edition of the Work and Correspondence of Adam Smith, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), vol. VI.
  2. Kale, Steven French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
  3. Stallybrass, Peter “Reading Between the Lines: How to read a 19th-Century Letter”, Huntington Frontiers, Spring/Summer 2012, pp. 6-7.
  4. Whyman, Susan E. The Pen and the People. English Letter Writers 1660-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).